The Sunday Weekly poetry post coincides with the third eclipse in thirty days. We had a full moon lunar eclipse on 5th June. Then came the solar eclipse that coincided with Summer Solstice. Then the very rare third eclipse within thirty days. Eclipses generally only come in pairs. We will have to wait another eight years before we see the triple eclipse in a month phenonmena.
I am still doing practice runs on Zoom, figuring out how I want to format creative writing Zoom worshops online with my band of volunteers. Yesterday’s exercise involved some rapid associations with the word eclipse. Other than the astronomical and ornithological definitions, it is also used in comparisons to say X has surpassed Y somehow. Also, “to obscure the light.” I asked the usual six questions of what, where, who, when, why and how light is or can be obscured. Then…go!
My own in class cogitations resulted in this word doodle that concentrated on the Lilith – Adam- Eve triangle. I always characterise lunar eclipses as being Lilith kinds of events. Because she was said to like to be on top, which led to a very stormy marital bed with Adam.
The sun and moon collide.
The full moon rides the sun
like a witch astride her besom.
Lilith left Adam in the shade.
Eve found the desire to know
had a bewitching, heady perfume.
Eve stayed with Adam in shadow.
Paradise - delayed.
This stormy morning that alternates between heavy rain showers and brief bursts of sunshine, I had another stab at the theme. Wallace Steven’s sublime 13 Ways to Look at a Blackbird always feels like a suitable poem to read on the Sabbath. That is a masterful poem, but also a useful reminder to look at a subject from as many angles as possible. This morning I managed eight.
Another week and this Sunday’s post marks the end of the deepest cocooning of Ireland. From tomorrow we can travel whereever we wish in the Republic and we can get a haircut! We are going to have to wear masks on public transport and are being strongly encouraged to do so in supermarkets. As an enthusiastic masker from the beginning, and usually the only one in my village doing so, I really hope it is embraced. But I am aware that people balk at it on a really visceral level. And in Ireland there is none of that politicisation nonsense happening. So why do some people have such a problem with masks?
These past couple of weeks I have been pilotting a small creative writing class on Zoom with past students with the patience to hold my hand as I fumble through the new technology. While many are plotting their way back outside again, I am plotting a way to get some income through the winter months when weather can cancel classes. Also, I am creating a safe burrow because I do not think Covid19 will magically disappear in winter when Irish hospitals routinely deal with the winter vomitting bug and various strains of flu. I love people, but my more introverted nature is hard-wired for happiness holed up in winter. Fortunately, my husband is similarly hard-wired and we are content with each other’s company though we pretty much tinker away at our own projects all day. We like the quiet life.
So keep tabs on this space when I announce 30 day modules of creative writing Zoom classes this autumn and winter. The dark months in the Northern Hemisphere are perfect for incubating lots of creative projects.
I asked my class to mind map around the subject of masks and then to write a short piece, either flash fiction or a poem. I also sent them a video of Maya Angelou reciting her poem “We Who Wear Masks” before the session as an inspiration. You can view it here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_HLol9InMlc
You might want to try that exercise to find all the various associations you have with masks. See where your wild mind will take you.
My own mind map was all over the place with lots of arrows and squiggly lines that sort of connected disparate elements. For instance, if you excavate the genesis of Halloween costumes and masking children you go back to the folk belief that the veil between our world and the ‘the other world’ or parallel universe was tissue thin. They wanted to fool whatever malignant spirits might want to whisk away their beautiful child to the other realm. So they dressed up children in ghoulish garb to make them unappealing to travelling spirits. Halloween dress up was all about protection.
While protection and survival was one strand on my map, there was the trickier element of the Lord of Misrule, those Masked Balls so beloved by licentious Regency aristocrats and lusty carnival goers in Venice. There was the secret self that is given license to throw off inhibitions or social conventions for a spell. Then there were the superheros and justice warriors like Batman. Many of those Marvel characters mask the upper face rather than the lower part of the face.
Immigrant Muslim women who choose to veil the lower part of their face have received wide disapprobation in the West. Is there something in our Western culture’s collective psyche that is freaked out by not seeing a person’s mouth? We don’t all have to lip read after all! If we consider eyes as the mirror of the soul and you can see a person’s eyes with an upper mask, what social cues are we missing when a person masks the lower face?
Some human beings are gifted at dissembling, for projecting a ‘false face’ even when not wearing a physical mask. So why so much resistance, when wearing a mask can be a matter of life or death for some individuals?
I will let you walk around your own mental labyrinth on the subject. My students came up with very individual ways of entering into that maze. See where it takes you and what revelations await you.
I will leave you with my own pandemic face mask anecdote. We needed to get some items from the town 20km over. As we were there already, we picked up some items from the supermarket and used the post office that shares houseroom with the market. I know the postmaster by name and greeted him. When he saw me wearing the mask he queried, “Customer of Bandit?”
A lot can happen in a week’s time. This week I piloted my first creative writing Zoom session with a handful of volunteers who are helping me find my way towards the most workable method and format. I have been facilitating creative workshops in the Marble Arch Caves Geopark region now for nearly ten years. I know I will need to alter some of my teaching methods, but I also want to maintain the integrity of the sharing sessions. Besides, come winter when we are all holed up, we will need these kinds of interactions as we isolate to keep the bugs at bay. We have another session at this week’s end which I hope will tease out the details of how I will operate in the Word Alchemy Zoom Room.
Also this week, our Taoiseach announced that the Roadmap to Re-opening is being accelerated since we have maintained our flattened curve. From next Monday we can drive anywhere, not just stick to our county or venture 20 km if we have to cross county boundaries. We still need to mask on public transport and in crowded shops, but we are also asked to be sensible and leave anywhere as the it begins to build a crowd. And, as always, maintain two metres social distance and wash your hands! But I cannot say I am hankering to go any great distance. I can now book a hair dresser appointment and get a trim from my local hairdresser who will be in mask and PPE and providing for customers likewise; I am waiting patiently for my appointment. That may be about as much excitement as I can take. Appointments with Nuala are generally jolly.
And I guess it was like this for our ancestors before the advent of the car or automotive mass transit. We stayed local. We knew our locality intimately – the blades of grass as much as all the human inhabitants. Currently, I am slowly savouring an excellent book written by a fifteen year old from Northern Ireland. Diary of a Young Naturalist shows me so much of what I do not notice. I wish I could match the all of the bird species to the songs I hear. Sadly, I may know many by sight, but few by sound.
My Zoom session picked up on a quotation from an article in the 13th June Guardian Review section. Several writers were asked what they had learned under lockdown. I picked up on one quotation from Kiran Millward Hargrave.
What lockdown has taught me is to notice. My luck, yes, and also the many blessings of where I live.
We have just passed one of the great axis points of the year. In Ireland, summer solstice happened at 10:43 pm last night. The wind was wild and the rain sometimes quite fierce. Then we have the solar eclipse (a new moon) at 4:45am. Yes, I did set the alarm and I scrabbled around trying to get the live feed to the Solstice Gathering in Glastonbury. (I visited at Bealtaine 2018; Chalice Well gardens are beautiful.) But they had some tech difficulties with the wind and weather and the opening was a bit delayed. By the time of the peak of the eclipse it was 7:40. The rain had stopped and wind eased, so I took my drum out onto our new patio area and drummed prayers of gratitude to the land that has held us in its verdant palm through the months of maintaining the collective quarantine.
What I Noticed In My Cocoon
the early purple orchid for the first time in eighteen springtimes
I have walked up and down and up and down again
and again on the lane just outside my front door.
the cuckoo calling and calling from week three of staying put.
Out in the garden one day my husband called out to me.
A great buff cuckoo had flown over our nest.
anxiety in my sweat. Sometimes it hurt so much to think about...
I would lean into the kitchen sink and think
"Brace! Brace! Brace!" and wait for the wave to crash.
so I cooked up whatever deliciousness made from the anything to hand.
And I baked, rationing out the butter, eggs and the sugar
to make sure we always had some sweetness on our tongues.
I could pat the dog and carry around the cat.
I picked flowers from the garden and arranged them artistically.
I held my husband's hand. Sometimes guiltily. Because I could.
one day when I pegged the washing on the line I looked up
and saw a jet stream's track arching across a clear, blue sky.
I wanted to write something that was included both the summer solstice and the eclipse. I tried some haiku, a senryu and tanka. In the end, I was most satisfied with the tanka.
Keep in touch each Sunday with this blog when I will announce when creative writing workshops will be up and running in the Word Alchemy Zoom Room.
I was scratching around for a jump start for the Sunday Weekly poem this morning. Having had a good week of manuscript re-writes it just felt like the gears were grinding to get back to writing the first drafts that get published here. It has been an unsettling week out in the world beyond my townland. Bucolic does not mean completely disconnected or uncaring. In the end, I pulled the poetry anthology Tell Me the Truth About Life off the bookshelf. The page fell open to W. B. Yeat’s poem The Second Coming, very apt since yesterday was auld Will’s birthday. It is also a poem that speaks to the condition of our times. “The centre cannot hold…” What is truer of our polarised world?
Then I read the lyrics from Leonard Cohen’s poem “Everybody Knows”. Here are some lines from the first verse.
Everybody knows that the dice are loaded
Everybody rolls with their fingers crossed
Everybody knows the fight was fixed
The poor stay poor, the rich get rich
June 19th will mark the 103rd birthday of my mother. June 19th is also known as Juneteenth, the celebration by many African Americans of the emancipation from slavery. The tradition began in Texas where, on June 19th 1865, a Union officer read the declaration to Texans that slaves were freed. The Confederacy had lost the civil war, but the struggle for full civil rights had only just begun. We know that the granting of full civil rights to African Americans has been an uphill struggle ever since then. I grew up as bit by bit schools were desegregated. When I arrived in Washington, DC in 1974 you could still see block upon devastated block of ‘riot corridor’ in the aftermath of so many civil rights set backs and Dr. Martin Luther King’s assasination. Equality for all has been a very long work in progress.
My mother taught me that discrimination matters, that it is unfair and it was wrong to harm in word or deed anyone who was not the same religion, social class, or race as us. She was particularly clear that racism is wrong. Now this might seem a bit unlikely for a woman who spent her childhood years in Jim Crow North Carolina. (Jim Crow was the codified segregation and oppression of African Americans post- Emancipation Proclamation.) In part, an unlikely alliance and friendship that bloomed in a school library between 1929 and 1932 may have been responsible for her stance.
My mother was a shy woman. In 1929 she and her sisters were living in New Jersey. Their parents had separated. Academically gifted, my mother had skipped two grades and was was placed in high school along with both her elder sisters where she graduated aged 15. Sparing the full details, let us just say that, for my mother, the years between 1929 and 1932 were fit for a novel by Charles Dickens without any silver linings. In her High School Yearbook the year she graduated the song assigned to her was “I Ain’t Got Nobody.” It was a mean spirited, but probably fair, assessment. For barring her sisters, it probably felt that way to my mother.
My mother only ever spoke of one friend from her high school years – Nellie Gator. Nellie was the sole African American in her high school class. At a time when her world was chaotic, frightening, and insecure, that connection was important to her. Nellie must have been very kind to Mom because she seemed to have been paying it forward from that day on.
This Juneteenth my birthday present to my mother is a donation to Black Lives Matter. Because they do. Nellie Gator mattered a great deal to my mother.
What our mothers teach us matters. We need to be more like Nellie and Elma.
We are living in a season of grief. We are living in a season of mass bereavements – from Covid19 or other causes – where we are limited in our expressions of mourning. We are also facing grief for injustices done. Sadness is an appropriate response. Anger is an understandable response. In my own sorrow I turned to poetry. This is the book I plucked from the shelf.
Before I tell you about the poem that I turned to, I want to speak as some one who grew up as a white person in a small town that had one black family and two mixed race families. In 1968 I was eleven and the land of my birth was being shriven with unrest caused by civil rights withheld and a foreign conflict that many did not sanction. Protests that turned ugly were on the 6:30 news most summer evenings. (We religiously watched NBC’s The Huntley BrinkleyReport in our household.) That raised my consciousness, as well as the assasinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Senator Robert Kennedy. What I had to help educate myself and build empathy was good reading matter.
My elementary school publicised a subscription book club where you could buy cheap paperbacks every month. I spent a lot of my weekly allowance with that Book Club. As a book worm tween I was able to buy and read books like Booker T. Washington’s Up from Slavery and a biography of Mary MacLeod Bethune. Because I was also hungry for biographies of women (which were thin on the ground in the 1960s), I understood on some unconscious level the desire of having someone who looks like you reflected in the world. In those days we had a new phrase “role models.” I might not have had the same skin colour as Bethune, but golly she was a Mighty Woman! What reading did for me was educate me about lives that were different from mine, but were interesting and powerfully inspiring. It also gave me context for what was happening contemporaneously. Reading forged a connection that transcended social, racial, religious, and gender differences. It also exercised my empathy muscle and prepared me for reading The Diary of Anne Frank. By puberty I was well informed at just how low humans could go in terms of harming fellow human beings.
So, readers, please give your children books that will give them context to help them understand the why of what it happening at this moment. It will help them in so many ways.
Now, to the poem that helped me write the Sunday Weekly poem and also to navigate my sadness with this moment in our history. The poem is Alice Walker’s “Torture” that runs through a litany of “when they torture your…” loved ones with the response “Plant a Tree.” The final verse runs thus:
When they begin to torture
and cut down the forest
they have made
Alice Walker “Torture” from Horses Make a Landscape More Beautiful
June 5th marks the first of three eclipses within thirty days. We have two lunar eclipses with the full moons on the 5th of June and on 4th July. Sandwiched between, on the same day as summer solstice,we have a solar eclipse on 21st June. In reading an email from astrologer Chani Nicholas about this tumulutous thirty days, I feel she makes a very pertinent remark that speaks to the world’s current condition. Eclipses, in her view, purge toxicity. We usually get two sets of solar and lunar eclipses every year. 2020, very unusually, offers us an extra set. To have three within thirty days is also an astrological rarity. And what she feels this period asks of us is to “investigate the connective tissue of our world and our lives.”
What connections have been eclipsed? What has been shadowed? How does this illuminate our current condition? Two articles I have read this week have made a great impression upon me. Both are intrinsic to my interrogating my white person’s privelege. The first is an early release of of Anne Applebaum’s article “History Will Judge the Complicit”, the cover story for the July/August edition of The Atlantic.https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2020/07/trumps-collaborators/612250/ . The second arrived in an email from Maria Popova’s Brainpickings website that includes a dialogue on race (from Rap on Race) between anthropologist, Margaret Mead, and author James Baldwin.
We sideline our past at our peril. How often are we encouraged too soon to “move on?”
“Moving on” often encodes other people’s agendas for us. It can sow a spurious forgetfulness of pain. “Moving on” sometimes skates on the surfaces, denying the depth of pain or grief. It can lead to stuffing down emotions that are not validated, where they go to live in some shadowy corner of our body and mind.
“Moving on” can become an excuse for avoiding responsibility. At worst, it is a conscious tactic to shirk responsibility and guilt. It is a ducking down, avoiding getting caught in the act of complicity. It can even disguise itself and become a strategy to avoid being identified as the cause that effected the pain. “Moving on” can be like forgoing an autopsy on an unexplained death and going without the Medical Examiner’s pathology report that fully explains the damage inflicted from ‘the gross insult’ to the person.
And, going down metaphor lane, we can extend this to mean not just the gross insult to a physical body, or person, but also to minds, to a community, to a group of people who have had a label hung around their necks like a yoke is put on oxen.
Which happened to some slaves on American soil. They were human beings classified as chattels, listed as property in wills and tax records. The story of enslaved human beings on the soil that became known as the United States of America began in 1619. We have had four hundred years of racism. The US capital city, the White House, and Capital itself, was built by enslaved people.
I do not want to move on from this moment in history if it means the continuation of oppression.
This is where James Baldwin’s and Margaret Mead’s discussion is thought provoking. Mead cannot accept Baldwin’s assertion that he is responsible for the perpetuation of racist attacks. Why? Because he did nothing to stop them happening. He addresses the state of our – all of us – complicity. “All of us have produced a system of reality which we cannot in anyway control; what we call history is perhaps a way of avoiding responsibility for what has happened, what is happening, in time.” And, by his lights, atonement is called for. Then there can be forgiveness and history is no longer an excuse note.
Considering that long history of oppression on US soil, I remembered an 18th century American man who made concerted life-changing decisions not to remain complicit. Like Saul before him, this devout Quaker had a Damascene moment. His employer asked him to write a bill of sale for the purchase of a human being. He was so appalled by this action that he refused to do so again and found alternative employment that aligned with his conscience.
Behind the unfamiliar 18th century turn of phrase, he acknowledges how the selfish spirit, ever strong, can be rooted in the oppression and exploitation of others. Long before Ghandi and Dr. Martin Luther King were espousing non-violent direct action, Woolman was interrogating his own responsibility and complicity in the oppression and violent harm to others. He was a Recorded Minister in the Religious Society of Friends, but he preached with gentle persuasion and explanations as to how his conscience had decided (or ‘convinced’ him to use Quaker terminology) upon his course of action. Always, he took long, prayerful consideration of what Jesus would do in any circumstance. He resisted his white privelage as best he could under the circumstances of colonial, pre-Revolutionary America. By the time he died he had convinced all Quakers to free their own slaves and begin the long compaign to change the hearts and minds of others to outlaw the slave trade. In effect, he galvanised Quakers to consider that their faith was intimately connected with effecting social justice for other than themselves. That, in effect, social justice activism was the connective tissue of their religion.
It began by addressing his shadow, his sense of guilt towards another human being and his responsibility as a humble clerk, a tiny cog in the system that was evil. He did his best to atone.
By The Light
When his employer asked him, a clerk,
to write a bill of sale of one human being
to another, he stopped.
He would never do it twice.
Not for the sake of a wage. There could be other
employment - tailoring, for instance. But then -
cotton! Picked by slave labour. So
and wore flax instead.
He travelled in the ministry to share the light
of a Christianity out of step with many.
to where the words came from.
Even when they spoke in different tongues
he felt for the Spirit moving within
his Friend, his Neighbour.
And he coveted none that belonged to them,
like their dignity. Guest at plantations he paid slaves
for their service, gently asking his hosts to honour
his Conscience 's dictates.
Not theirs. (Not yet.) An early exercise
in consciousness raising. Like not taking sugar
or drinking rum, small acts accumulate into petitions
to deliver us from great evil.
He was only one, and mostly unsung.
He did strive to live in The Light, awake,
considering how one may live away
from the Valley of Shadow, with Darkness undone.
We are all fledglings these days. We can learn a great deal from nature. Certainly with cocooning we have more time now to carefully observe nature in our New Normal.
Just eleven days ago, as Ireland began Phase 1 of our Roadmap to Returning, my husband discovered a nest of baby blue tits in the cavity of some concrete blocks that had lain fallow during lockdown when some hard landscaping work had ceased. Tony, being a Franciscan at heart, immediately began to create a fortress to make sure Mama Bird could get in and out while our cats were not going to be allowed to indulge in any serial killer instincts. This Sunday, we can announce that they have flown the nest. Also, there is only one starling that is still rooming in the eaves over my writing space. The fledglings have begun to go out in the world, though Tony reports that one of the baby birds has been visiting him and watches him while he works in the garden. Perhaps the bird feels comforted by Tony’s protective presence.
We are all fledglings now. Cautiously, for essential tasks, we admit strangers to our homes. And then, if you are me, you spray every surface they could potentially have touched in the process of putting in copper gas pipes so I could make dinners. All delivery people and installers are masked, but it can be hard to stay with them in a heat wave. Well, for us, anything over 21C (70F) is a heatwave. We are languishing in afternoon temperatures rising to 24C this weekend.
Which is why I am posting the Sunday Weekly poem a bit later than usual. I am a shade plant. Though I am not really a morning lark by nature, in hot weather if I am going to be anything other than a slug, I have to perform essential tasks like the long(ish) dog walk, as well as some housework and garden weeding and watering before I reach melting point at 11am. We have a breeze today, so I made it to 11:30.
Ireland tends to feel shorted on summertime, but this year of lockdown has seen long, long periods without rain, lots of sunshine and now, temperatures that are warmer than we are used to experience at this time of year. The hawthorn blossom is spent and the elder is flowering early. A friend also noticed that the orchids we have around here seem to be out earlier, too. The springtime palette of purples and yellows is now yielding to the pinks of celine, lupin, foxglove and snapdragon. The rose Galway Bay has bloomed. The mallow, which had self-seeded all over the place in the poorest of conditions, is flowering early, too. Summer is looking very magenta pink this year!
Because it has been a busy week, with bursts of social interation with trades people, as well as unaccustomed heat, I have cut myself some slack on the Sunday Weekly Poem front. I have written a tanka again this week. Summer has come in. We have lots of work to do and have to pace ourselves through it.
How do you keep track of which day of the week it is if you are not working a regular job, at home or otherwise? What routine is part of your Covid 19 New Weekend Normal? One friend confessed that she ordered out for takeaway food each Saturday. Partly it was to take a break from cooking. Mostly, to have some kind of marker in the week that was regular. Although getting a takeaway these days means collection is by appointment and a masked and gloved person slides your order to you on a tray. It feels faintly illicit. For me, now that NaPoWriMo is done, it is getting back to my Sunday Weekly post. That is my New Weekend Normal.
Ireland began Phase 1 of its Roadmap to Reopening last Monday. Although there was an initial rash of more people stopping and having a shouted chat from the lane to us in the garden, things have slumped back to the quieter rhythm. It is as if now that we have had a little ration of other faces different from the ones we have been looking at for the last two months and more, that we have crept back to our old cocooning ways. That Ireland’s two month drought, which coincided with the Call to Cocoon, broke this week, does not mean there is a rush for tiny outdoor tea parties. At writing, there is a storm, heavy rain for sure, but also really blustery wind over 40 km an hour. So this weekend the weather has us indoors.
The New Normal also means that every diary date that has been noted in January is cancelled. This Saturday I was scheduled to give a Mindfulness Walk in the Cavan Burren. On Sunday we should have been fine dining at the MacNean Restaurant, celebrating our niece’s 28th birthday. At this point, I am looking forward to FaceTiming with her and thinking that, all being well, we might get to see her August 11th! As for the Sunday lunch, I shall have to hope we can get a 2021 slot.
Though I have to say that the Phase 1 of reopening seemed to unlock my ability to tackle re-writes, to edit individual poems for the manuscript that has languished between adjusting to our Covid19 New Normal and the diversion of daily poem writing for NaPoWriMo/GloPoWriMo. Anecdotally, I learned that many people had difficulty concentrating in the early days of Stay in Place. Although in many respects our lives did not change radically, it is often the subtle readjustments that throw us. Like when your cooker goes kaput and you are cocooning. For the first time ever I have invested in White Goods by looking at a photo of shopfloor model and paid by credit card over the phone. The delivery on Monday should be interesting. Nonetheless, things are shifting. The energy is subtly different.
Here in Ireland
This week, we opened the windows a crack.
So suddenly things felt a whole lot more people-y.
Though news travels tractor pace
up and down our lane, more cars passed
Monday, May 18th, and people didn’t just wave,
but pulled up, hand braked, to shout out catch ups.
Surprise that our neighbour next door went back to hospital
was it two weeks ago now. Shock that the cocoon funeral
actually had shoulder-to-shoulder pall bearers!
But the craic is the director has six family members on call.
There were pickups of garden cuttings set out on our wall
with shouted debates on how to avoid cultivation errors.
Just when we could have invited a friend round
for an outdoor cup of tea sitting two metres away,
the two month drought broke. The great wind
that might wind up being called Ellen blusters.
The willows are bending over at their waists
performing hourly ritual prostrations.
We remain in.
Cocooning prior to Covid-19 meant a time to go within, to regroup and recharge. It is especially sacred time for introverts to take time out when things just get too people-y. Here’s a poem I wrote before our current context. https://sojourningsmith.blog/2018/10/24/cocoon/.
Given the re-writes, the jigs and reels of submission guidelines, the brief fever of flash fiction writing this week, I am going to offer a tanka as the Sunday Weekly poem today. In terms of reopening from cocooning, I feel as if we may have cracked the pupa, but I feel like a very dozy caterpillar. The weather turned heavy this week as the low pressure system approached and a number of us (myself included) have felt zonked some days.
Some people count the weeks that they have been cocooned, quarantined or locked down. Until this morning I had not. I knew the date that was the last time we had driven outside of our village. We went to the nearest town twelve miles away to carry our some essential life laundry tasks and skittered back home fast. I was gloved up for that outing and have masked and gloved up since, even though Leitrim has the lowest infection rate in the Republic of Ireland. That was 52 days ago. Since then we have stayed within 2 kilometres of our home. Tony, celebrated his 70th birthday in March as cocooning was announced; he has been happily cocooned and busy in the garden. We realise how blessed we are to have it and our rural setting during this pandemic Chastening Time. I shop in the local grocery and post office/hardware for essentials. Anything we cannot get locally we buy online or is shopped for by a young neighbour, who also gloves up and masks, when he goes to the county seat each week. I sanitise like OCD is a fashion and not a mental disorder.
This week the realisation sank in that even as other parts of the world are loosening quarantine, this is now our new normal and will be for a long time to come. Technically, we could invite two non-related friends round for tea outdoors with our chairs spaced six feet from each other. In practice, I don’t think many of us are quite ready for that just yet. A kind of pandemic agoraphobia has set in. So while others may be planning a trip to the garden centre tomorrow, I have been contemplating the logistics of winter in the Chastening Time, which is now my name for this collective pandemic experience. Generally speaking, I am an optimist. But I respect science and historical experience.
I did some Googling around what people were reading during the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918-1919. According to a YouTube documentary I watched this week it was misnamed. The origins of that virus was in the American rural heartland when it jumped from pigs to humans. Spain got the name because it announced to the world that this killer virus was sweeping the nation. Elsewhere there had been cases but due to media censorship during World War I, the infection was more rumour than public health bulletin. The troop movements exacerbated the virus finding more and more human hosts globally. The last landfall of that particular virus was Australia in 1919.
Of course, the horror of mechanised war was what dominated the poetry publisher lists. Siegfried Sassoon and Rudyard Kipling must have been an interesting juxtopositioning on the Publishers Weekly lists. W. B. Yeats published his Wild Swans at Coole that included his poem “An Irish Airman Foresees His Death.” Sara Teasdale’s Love Songs was awarded a Pulitzer in 1918. In 1919 Margaret Widdemer’s The Old Road to Paradise shared the poetry Pulitzer with Carl Sandburg’s The Cornhuskers. Ezra Pound and T.S. Elliot were just beginning their poetry careers in the UK. They were also mourning poets killed by the war like Wilfred Owen and Edward Thomas, who was a close friend of Robert Frost.
Even though the Spanish Flu could strike you stone dead within twelve hours there is not a great deal to hint that this pandemic was killing more than the considerable casualties of the Great War. But, as a friend who studied Public Health Administration told me in a phone conversation, that generation was used to people falling ill and dying. They did it all the time. They did not have antibiotics. Recovery was a miracle; invalid relatives appear in novel’s marginalia all the time in the 19th century. Beth March is probably the most famous example. They all visit the seaside, but linger as shadows and then die. Yellow Fever and cholera epidemics were within living memory. Tuberculosis was rife. So numbed by the sheer scale of military casualties, the Spanish flu barely ripples across the pages of poetry. That people should fall ill and die was in the normal purview of the Grim Reaper. That a generation of men should be gassed, maimed and suffocated in muddy trenches was something new and horrifying.
But here we are a century on, innured to the medical magic bullets of antibiotics and vaccines. Except this particular virus has all the wiliness of a fox and the whole pack of hounds on its heels can simply not run it to earth. Or, at least, in no time in the near future. And for those who object to blood sports, I apologise to the fox in the metaphor above.
All this rumination comes from contemplating how you can be preparing a manuscript to send off to publishers (many of whom may go to the wall in the economic crash) without somehow referencing this collective experience. Or, as same friend in a phone call relates, the only thing that remains the same in one’s life are the seasons.
So for this Sunday’s Weekly poem I concentrated on one of the eternals in life.
By the by, the two of best selling authors whose names still had some recognition a century later were Zane Grey and Mary Roberts Rinehart. Agatha Christie broke out in Publishers Weekly in 1920. So if you can only read light fiction at the moment, you may have something in common with our ancestor’s pandemic reading tastes.
Contemplating the function of poetry in these strange times, it seems to me that the themes of impermanence and small joys speak to our current global condition. Elegies exercise grief over loss. Odes, too, can eulogise. Haiku, senryu, and tanka offer a snapshot image and feeling that is already gone except for the paper it is written on. Perhaps nature and love poems are the compensating joys, even if that, too, proves evanescent. The Celtish culture defined poetry as being ‘all memory.’ Memory can be a tricky thing. Holes can appear; we mend and make do to create meaning in the face of the great imponderables. In the face of our inchoate, post-Covid 19 future, philosophy may help us navigate day to day reality, but poetry may actually be what helps us navigate grief and uncertainty.
I know that some of my readers will be in the belly of a polar vortex this weekend. One Ohio based Facebook friend posted a photo of snowflakes on dandelion clocks. Here in Ireland today is chillier, after several days that were 20C (or 68 Farhrenheit in old money.) The sunshine made it feel warmer and I anointed myself with sunscreen for the first time this year, as one step beyond the floppy hat protection. We had the full Flower Moon, the last supermoon of 2020, this past week and astronomical Bealtaine (or Beltane outside of Ireland). As if waiting for its cue, the hawthorn began to unbutton its tight white buds and began to flower. I wrote a long Beataine poem this week that has been sent to a friend who posted me some life enhancing Lockdown light literature – crime fiction by Antonia Fraser, Raymond Chandler and J. M. Cain. I asked what I could send as a thank you and all she wanted was a Bealtaine poem! Classy lady, as another friend commented.
In the USA it is Mother’s Day. On this side of the pond we celebrate that on a Sunday that is close to the vernal equinox; it also is close to Lady Day, the feast of the Annunciation of Mary. Either date, the celebration of Mother’s Day has strong Marian overtones. Bealtaine, the month of May, is also a great fertility celebration as the growing season gets into full swing.
So for the Sunday Weekly I have written some tanka, although I have played a bit fast and lose with the rules in the latter. One is a salute to American Mother’s Day, which must feel rather odd this year for families that don’t share one roof. Lilacs are strong in my childhood memories of the month of May. Partially because there was a bush by the kitchen side door. Also partially because of hay fever memories from the bouquets brought to school for Marian celebration processions.
And this other tanka-ish poem is a nod to my near neighbours. I shouldn’t really say they are noisy, but… Their nest in the roof’s eaves is just above my writing space. So I cannot help but notice them.
Have a peaceful, restful Sunday with many small joys.